By Kenneth Turn
The Los Angeles Times
Films don’t always deserve the awards they win, but when the delicious “Mid-August Lunch” took home the coveted Golden Snail at Bologna’s International Festival of Food and Film, justice was definitely served. As well as some very tasty meals.
A small, human-scaled 75-minute film about the necessity of companionship in general and the bonding nature of shared food and wine in particular, the droll “Mid-August” is a tribute to the gentle skills of Italian filmmaker Gianni Di Gregorio, who not only wrote and directed this unhurried chamber piece but also starred in it as a character he named after himself.
“I played the leading role,” Di Gregorio puckishly explains in a director’s note, “because when we were preparing the film, while I was explaining to the crew that we need to find a middle-aged man, more or less an alcoholic, who had lived for years with his mother, I realized that all eyes were turned to me.”
Though he’s been a working screenwriter in Italy for decades, Di Gregorio’s last credit, the devastating gangster story “Gomorrah,” couldn’t be more different than his current film, which is simply, almost casually done in a style best described as unhurried.
In both films, however, a concern for character underlies everything. In “Mid-August,” the protagonists are a quirky collection of four elderly ladies, played by women who’d never acted before, gathered by the whims of fate in a tiny Roman apartment during an Italian summer holiday.
During nonholidays, the only residents are Gianni and his 93-year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis). He is considerate, accommodating and unmarried, and his strong-minded mother, though commanding in a deferential way, very much loves and appreciates a son who takes the time to read aloud to her from Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers.”
At the approach of Pranzo di Ferragosto, the mid-August holiday that gives the film its Italian title, that family dynamic comes increasingly into play, for what launches “Mid-August Lunch’s” plot is the complicated can’t-live-with-them, can’t-live-without-them relationship Italian men often have not with their wives but with their mothers.
Enter first Luigi (Alfonso Santagata) with a proposition. He’s the manager of the condominium building where Gianni and his mom are perpetually behind in the rent. If Gianni will watch Luigi’s mother (Marina Cacciotti) over the August holidays, the manager will forgive some of the money that’s owed.
Gianni reluctantly agrees, but it soon gets more complicated. First the mother comes with her sister, Aunt Maria (Maria Cali), who will be staying over as well. Then Gianni’s loyal doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi) pleads that he too needs somewhere to park his mother (Grazi Cesarini Sforza).
Though characterized as the most docile of creatures by their sons, all these quirky, opinionated women turn out to have obstinate personalities of their own, and even someone as accommodating as Gianni will clearly have his hands full entertaining — and feeding — this willfully eccentric group.
“Mid-August Lunch” is inescapably a small-scale endeavor, but it is brought to life by how much filmmaker De Gregorio, like the character he plays, admires these strong-minded, gesticulating, quintessentially Italian grand dames. The whole thing is as satisfying as a meal at a slow food restaurant, and when Gianni’s mother gratefully tells her son, “you mellow these hours,” we wholeheartedly agree.
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